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Functionalism vs. Conflict Theory: What's the Difference?

Edited by Janet White || By Harlon Moss || Updated on October 8, 2023
Functionalism views society as a system of interdependent parts, while conflict theory sees society as groups competing for resources.

Key Differences

Functionalism operates on the notion that each component of society has a function that contributes to the stability and continuity of society, offering a vision of cohesion and unity. In contrast, conflict theory focuses on the disparities between different groups within society and the ensuing struggles for power and resources, emphasizing societal discord and competition.
A crucial aspect of functionalism is that it sees social institutions (e.g., family, education) as essential mechanisms that maintain social order by fulfilling necessary functions, contributing to societal balance. Conversely, conflict theory, inspired significantly by Karl Marx’s writings, argues that these same institutions act as means for powerful groups to subdue and control weaker ones, propagating social inequalities.
Functionalism maintains a more optimistic viewpoint of society, suggesting that if one part changes, the other components will adjust to restore equilibrium eventually. In opposition, conflict theory has a pessimistic approach towards social change, often highlighting that changes usually occur through strife and struggle, typically in the form of class conflicts or other societal pressures.
From a functionalist perspective, social policies and norms are established to sustain social order, ensuring that each part of society functions smoothly and in harmony. Conflict theory, however, posits that these policies and norms often stem from a place of dominance, enacted by those in power to secure and enhance their position by maintaining disparities among societal groups.
Emphasizing stability, functionalism tends to underscore the positive aspects of social structures and their contributions to the preservation of societal norms and values. Contrarily, conflict theory sheds light on societal issues and disparities, advocating that social structures can perpetuate inequality and can often suppress marginalized groups, hence causing societal tension and upheaval.

Comparison Chart

Core Focus

Stability and order in society
Strife and discord among societal groups

View on Society

A system of interdependent parts
A competition for resources and power

Change Perspective

Gradual and adaptive
Often abrupt and revolutionary

Social Institutions

Maintain and restore social order
Perpetuate social inequalities


Emile Durkheim, Talcott Parsons
Karl Marx, C. Wright Mills

Functionalism and Conflict Theory Definitions


A psychological theory that considers mental states as identified by what they do, not by what they are made of.
Functionalism in psychology explores how mental processes facilitate an organism's interaction with the environment.

Conflict theory

A theoretical orientation that perceives social phenomena as encapsulating the struggles between competing groups.
Conflict theory analyzes events like labor strikes as a reflection of the battles between workers and employers for resources and power.


A philosophical perspective focusing on the utility and purposefulness of structures and systems.
In architecture, functionalism prioritizes the practical use of buildings over aesthetic considerations.

Conflict theory

An analytical approach that examines how societal groups might use power to exploit other groups.
Conflict theory explores how wealthy elites may utilize their power to enforce a socio-economic structure that benefits them.


A theory that explains phenomena based on the functions they perform.
In linguistics, functionalism investigates how language elements work to convey meaning and facilitate communication.

Conflict theory

A theory which posits that society is in a state of perpetual conflict due to competition for limited resources.
Karl Marx's writings significantly inform conflict theory, highlighting the struggles between different social classes.


A sociological perspective positing each societal part has a function and contributes to society's stability.
Functionalism suggests that the education system is crucial for imparting shared values to maintain societal harmony.

Conflict theory

A sociological perspective focusing on the power inequalities and class struggles in society.
Conflict theory emphasizes the role of coercion and power in producing social order.


An approach that evaluates social and cultural phenomena in terms of their practical uses and consequences.
Functionalism evaluates religious institutions by considering their role in preserving social norms and unity.

Conflict theory

A framework that views social behavior from the standpoint of tension and conflict between groups.
According to conflict theory, laws are often created by the powerful to suppress the weak and maintain status quo.


The doctrine that the function of an object should determine its design and materials.


A doctrine stressing purpose, practicality, and utility.


Who are prominent theorists in functionalism?

Notable theorists include Émile Durkheim and Talcott Parsons.

How does functionalism view society?

It views society as a system of interdependent parts working together.

What role do social institutions play in functionalism?

They maintain and promote societal stability and harmony.

What is the relationship between conflict theory and social inequality?

Conflict theory underscores that social inequalities arise from the perpetual conflict between societal groups.

Is functionalism still widely used in sociology today?

Functionalism remains influential, though modern sociologists often employ multiple theories.

Does conflict theory view competition negatively?

Not necessarily; it objectively analyzes how competition creates and perpetuates social structures.

How does functionalism interpret social changes?

It interprets social changes as adjustments that maintain societal balance.

Who is a key figure in conflict theory?

Karl Marx is a pivotal figure in the development of conflict theory.

How does conflict theory perceive social change?

It perceives social change as often abrupt and resulting from societal struggles.

Can functionalism and conflict theory be integrated?

While contrasting, some sociologists integrate both to provide comprehensive social analyses.

What is a significant difference between functionalism and conflict theory?

Functionalism emphasizes societal harmony and stability, while conflict theory focuses on power disparities and struggles.

What is the main focus of functionalism?

Functionalism focuses on how each part of society contributes to its stability and functioning.

Does conflict theory apply to all social institutions?

Yes, it can analyze any institution where there are power dynamics and inequalities.

Is functionalism macro or micro-level theory?

Functionalism is a macro-level theory.

What does conflict theory primarily explore?

Conflict theory explores the struggles between different groups over power and resources.

Does functionalism support the status quo?

Functionalism tends to support the status quo by emphasizing stability and order.

What are criticisms of functionalism?

Critics argue functionalism neglects social inequalities and the potential benefits of social change.

How is conflict theory relevant today?

Conflict theory remains relevant by illuminating societal disparities and conflicts, such as class struggles.

How does conflict theory view laws and regulations?

It views them as tools often used by the powerful to maintain control and order.

Can functionalism analyze social problems?

Yes, but it primarily examines how social structures address issues to maintain stability.
About Author
Written by
Harlon Moss
Harlon is a seasoned quality moderator and accomplished content writer for Difference Wiki. An alumnus of the prestigious University of California, he earned his degree in Computer Science. Leveraging his academic background, Harlon brings a meticulous and informed perspective to his work, ensuring content accuracy and excellence.
Edited by
Janet White
Janet White has been an esteemed writer and blogger for Difference Wiki. Holding a Master's degree in Science and Medical Journalism from the prestigious Boston University, she has consistently demonstrated her expertise and passion for her field. When she's not immersed in her work, Janet relishes her time exercising, delving into a good book, and cherishing moments with friends and family.

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